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Will the Old Gay Play Have Something New to Say?

Drama is about conflict, not comfort, of course, but what an ambivalent welcome such plays offered “sensitive” young men: Out of the closet, into the fire! Even the giddy joy of the 1996 revue “When Pigs Fly,” a satire of all things gay and anti-gay, was tempered by the knowledge that Howard Crabtree, its costume designer, co-conceiver and resident genius, died of AIDS two months before it opened. (The composer, Dick Gallagher, died of AIDS in 2005.)

I saw all of those shows in their original productions, except “The Boys in the Band,” which would have scared me straight at the age of 10. Though the others, which coincided with my 20s and 30s, moved me as general affirmations, their content often felt limiting rather than expansive. True, Arnold Beckoff fulfills his dream of becoming a father, but in 1982, that seemed like a gimmick: something that could happen only onstage.

Yet, over the past 20 years, gay rights did expand, well beyond anyone’s imagining. (I, too, became a father.) This recently led me to wonder what a young gay man arriving in New York would find if he looked in the mirror of the mainstream theater today.


David Pevsner from the 1996 production of “When Pigs Fly.”

James Estrin/The New York Times

Pretty much the same thing I did.

This past winter, that young man, if he had the money, would have seen the first Broadway revival of “Falsettos.” This fall, he might catch the first major revivals of “Torch Song Trilogy” (starring Michael Urie and Mercedes Ruehl), “M. Butterfly” (starring Clive Owen and Jin Ha) and “When Pigs Fly” (with costumes by Bob Mackie that pay homage to the outlandish originals). Come spring, he would probably pony up for the 50th-anniversary production of “The Boys in the Band,” which Ryan Murphy, who directed the 2014 television movie of “The Normal Heart,” plans to produce, with Joe Mantello directing, and Jim Parsons in a starring role.

Granted, these revivals are sometimes revisions. “Torch Song Trilogy” is no longer even a trilogy — and has therefore been retitled simply “Torch Song.” (Moisés Kaufman directs.) And Mr. Hwang, working with the director Julie Taymor, has rewritten parts of “M. Butterfly” to reflect information that has emerged in recent years about the real-life people the play is based on.

Despite these updatings, the fall schedule feels to me like a rewind of my young adulthood in New York, circa 1980 to 1998. Of course, many other gay-themed works arrived in that period, some, like “Angels in America,” eternally fresh. (The recent London revival, starring Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield, begins performances at the Neil Simon Theater on February 22.) But the rest are more like songs on a dusty mixtape found in a bottom drawer. Will they even play? What will they sound like to older — or younger — ears?

Until this year, I would have guessed they’d sound, well, old. Recent “gay” plays have moved past the existential phase (“We are here”) toward second-stage questions of assimilation (“Get used to us”) and beyond. Mr. and Mr. debating fidelity and diapers in CB2 living rooms has almost become passé. Gay men were even beginning to cede the theatrical spotlight to other parts of the L.G.B.T.Q. rainbow, and to intersectional issues of sexuality, gender and race.


Clive Owen and Jin Ha of “M. Butterfly.”

Josef Astor

The new season will, in fact, offer a taste of that. MCC Theater is presenting Philip Dawkins’s “Charm,” about a black transgender woman who teaches etiquette to street kids at a community center in Chicago. And Dan Giles’s “Breeders,” at the Access Theater in TriBeCa, gives the naturalistic tone of most gay plays a surreal goose — or rather hamster — as a same-sex couple adopting a baby shares the stage with a pair of expecting rodents.

But such shows (let alone major productions of plays about lesbians) are in the minority this fall. And it isn’t difficult to figure out what has rewound the gay theatrical agenda from second-stage to first-stage concerns.

Mark Waldrop, the co-conceiver, lyricist and director of “When Pigs Fly,” can pretty much pinpoint the shift. When approached in early 2016 about staging a revival, he was, he says, “fearful of having it dismissed as something whose time had passed.” That fear disappeared after “certain political and cultural changes” last November made “most of the material feel newly relevant.”

Not all of it, though. Mr. Waldrop has dropped the gay marriage number and tinkered with the three torch songs in which a gay sprite confesses his hopeless love for famous homophobes of 1996: Newt (“I think you’re cute”) Gingrich, Rush (“Don’t make me blush”) Limbaugh and Strom (“I can’t stay calm”) Thurmond.

Though two of the three remain apt enough, Mr. Waldrop has bigger homophobes to fry in 2017. He won’t say who they are, but one, it may now be revealed, rhymes with “swan.”

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